Just up the road, a tranquil county spreads across Northern Virginia. Most of us, traveling on I-95 to D.C., have passed through Prince William County. Maybe we’ve glimpsed the cozy town of Occoquan while crossing a high bridge over the Occoquan River. Next time take Exit 160 to Occoquan, park under a shady tree, and stroll through town, where art galleries, restaurants, and antique shops promise a pleasant escape from the highway hustle and bustle.
Now that you’ve been introduced to Prince William County, stick around. You’ll discover a bucolic county that offers visitors with varied interests a week’s worth of pleasure. Whether you’re into history, the arts, nature, wine, the military, trains, shopping, or food, you’ll find plenty to entertain you in Prince William County.
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Let’s begin with history. An excellent starting place is the Manassas Museum in Old Town Manassas, where Rtes. 28 and 234 intersect. Open since 1991, the museum highlights artifacts and exhibits of Prince William County and the Piedmont region of Virginia. You can view a moonshine still, a spinning wheel, and learn about the fashion of the Civil War period.
The day I visited a docent gave a revealing talk on 1860s-era women’s undergarments. First the lady donned a corset, then pantaloons, then a chemise, then the first petticoat, followed by a second one, a third, up to as many as 12 underneath her hoop skirt! Women who wore striped socks under their skirts, incidentally, showed support for secession.
Old Town Manassas also offers walking tours, a great way to learn about the town’s history and glimpse some of the cool shops and boutiques you’ll want to visit. Of particular interest is the rail depot, built in 1914, made famous in the album cover for Stephen Stills and Manassas, and the Hopkins Candy Factory, built in 1908, which is now a center for the arts.
Plan to stop for a bite to eat at Okra’s Cajun Creole Restaurant, across from the Candy Factory, and dine on zesty dishes like Voodoo chicken and fried okra to the sounds of Zydeco, jazz, and blues. Another great spot is Siam Classic, a cozy Thai restaurant with delicious Pad Thai. Luckily I listened to the waitress who warned me away from ordering the spiciest version because the one I ordered was spicy enough.
A few miles to the west Buckland Historic District offers a glimpse of days gone by and is evolving into an important historic destination. Thanks to the efforts of local landowners and preservationists, the vision of this historic village, which was saved from development, is slowly taking shape. Maps showing the original buildings and streets of Buckland are currently being studied by archaeologists as fund raising efforts continue to protect this “rare, antebellum town, landscape, and Civil War battlefield,” according to a Buckland Preservation Society brochure.
David Blake, a horse breeder whose family has owned land in the area for generations, has taken an active role in protecting this important piece of American history and regularly lobbies politicians and works with Native Americans to ensure that this valuable resource is protected for generations to come. “I’ve seen all this land developed,” David said, “and it’s disheartening to me. We’ve got to do better than we have.” His vision for Buckland includes a museum, walking tours, and interpretive trails.
Manassas is probably best known for its battlefields, including Manassas National Battlefield Park, where the landscape has changed little since the bloody fighting raged on the idyllic rolling hills in 1861 and 1862. Start the experience by viewing the film that brings the battles to life in the visitor’s center. Afterwards explore the museum and then take the one-mile self-guided walking tour across the battlefields, which focuses on the events of the First Battle of Bull Run, won by the Confederate Army.
The park also offers a self-guided driving tour, which covers 12 locations that figured in the Second Battle of Bull Run, in which Union troops were also defeated. Our docent said that gunfire from these bloody battles could be heard as far away as D.C., and spectators, including Congressmen in fancy carriages, watched the battle from both sides.
Another battlefield worth visiting is called Bristoe Station Battlefield Heritage Park, where three battles were fought in 1862 and 1863, resulting in heavy Confederate losses. Today this tranquil spot attracts joggers from a nearby housing development, but over 1000 people died in these fields, many of whom are buried in the five cemeteries scattered about the 133-acre site.
Brentsville, the county seat of Prince William County until the Civil War, was a thriving community where farmers sold their wares and the courthouse attracted residents who came to view the trials and learn about the new laws being enacted. Now it’s an historic attraction, where you can visit an 1850s log home, the Brentsville Union Church, a one-room school, the county jail, and the Prince William County Courthouse, which is said to be haunted.
If you’re an arts fan, there’s plenty to like about Prince William County. Explore galleries in Manassas and Occoquan and tune into the local arts scene. One shop called Manassas Clay on Center Street in Manassas offers pottery for sale as well as ceramics classes. Old Town Manassas also offers periodic Gallery Walks with refreshments, live music, and of course exceptional art.
Plan to visit the Workhouse Arts Center in Lorton, where the region’s finest artists produce world-class art. Their studios are housed in a former prison, where a number of women suffragists were jailed. The art on display appears vibrant and colorful in comparison to the brick institutional ambiance. Concerts, classes, and receptions are frequently held.
The Hylton Performing Arts Center is a state-of-the-art venue that offers visitors and residents the opportunity to be entertained, educated, and enriched. Situated on George Mason University’s Manassas campus, the center exemplifies a unique partnership among the county, the city of Manassas, and the university. Sharing the stage with national acts are community arts groups and students from GMU. It’s a good example of a win-win partnership.
Take a nature break at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, a pristine site on the edge of Occoquan Bay, where migratory waterfowl offer birdwatchers ample opportunity to view feathered fowl in natural surroundings. Once used as a U.S. Army transmitting station, the land has remained relatively untouched and offers numerous hiking trails and great photo opps.
Another institution in Prince William County that deserves a visit is the National Museum of the Marine Corps. You’ve seen the signs as you drive up I-95, and maybe you’ve wondered whether stopping in would be worth your time. Trust me, it is.
Even though I’m not very knowledgeable about the Marine Corps, I was truly impressed with the quality of this facility and the educational exhibits about the Marines’ roles in the many wars fought by U.S. troops, including WWII, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and today’s global war on terrorism. Other exhibits offer information and artifacts from the Civil War, the Age of Expansion, and WWI.
Lance Corporal Andrew Daily, the young Marine who led us through the museum, provided a most informative tour, noting that out of a class of 80 who entered boot camp with him, only 35 graduated. You can learn more about “Making Marines” in an exhibit by that name. Outside the museum a beautiful park with a memorial chapel pays tribute to the service of all Marines.
One option is to combine your visit to Prince William County with a foray or two into Washington, D.C. What makes this a natural combo is the Virginia Rail Express, a commuter train that connects Manassas to D.C. and runs at various times during the day. And just in case you haven’t already been lured in by the monstrous signs along I-95, Potomac Mills Outlet Mall offers shopaholics over 200 stores with countless bargains.
Finally one last suggestion: if you love BBQ, you will definitely need to seek out Dixie Bones in Woodbridge, featuring pit-cooked “que” and an amazing menu of Southern-style goodness, such as collards, mac ‘n’ cheese, and stuffed potatoes. Dixie Bones was featured on Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” so don’t miss its authentic BBQ and good eats.
I’ve driven through Prince William County countless times. Now that I know what treasures await, I can’t wait to go back. Regardless of what floats your boat, this Virginia destination is sure to please.